My mother has requested only once that I buy an outdoor product. It wasn’t an uber warm sleeping bag, a highly engineered stove, or a rain jacket that was guaranteed to keep me dry. No, it was a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger.
She was not shy about her motivations. While a messenger would allow me to call for help if I ever needed it, more importantly she thought she would worry less if I sent her regular “I’m okay” messages.
That was 2008, shortly after SPOT released its first-generation messenger, which was a revolutionary product. At that time, the only other types of satellite communicators available were personal locator beacons (PLB’s), which are for emergencies only; and satellite phones, which are more expensive to own and operate. Read my in-depth comparison of satellite communicators.
About three years ago SPOT released is third-generation unit, the SPOT Gen3 Satellite GPS Messenger, which was sent to me by SPOT and which I used extensively throughout the 2014 and 2015 backpacking seasons. My exact use is unknown, but I estimate it to be dozens of trips and about 100 days total. I feel very confident in offering a long-term review.
- 4 oz with batteries
- Square-shaped, 3.5 inch tall and wide, 1 inch deep
- Nearly worldwide coverage, via the Globalstar satellite network
- $150 MSRP | Buy now from REI or Cabelas and support this content.
- Required monthly or annual service plan, starting at $12.50 per month
There are other types of satellite communicators besides the SPOT Gen3: personal locator beacons (PLB’s), satellite phones, and 2-way messengers. Read more. Due to their unique functions and specs, I do not feel that there is a single “best” device. Instead, each device is best for a particular type of user.
In the specific case of the SPOT Gen3, I recommend it for someone who:
- Values highly the weight and size of every item in their pack
- Desires more functionality than a PLB, notably non-emergency check-ins and route tracking
- Undertakes trips that are low- or moderate-risk and that have simple logistics
- Will be content with 1-way communication
I want to dig deeper on this last point. One-way communication may be fine if, for example, you:
- Are not an avid texter or talker in ordinarily life
- Think that four basic messages — OK, Help, SOS, and a custom message — are adequate
- Family and/or friends do not insist that they have the ability to reach you
- Messages from family and friends can wait until you exit, you feel
- You have another method of regularly receiving messages, e.g. spotty cell coverage
Specifically, then, for what applications is a SPOT Gen3 most appropriate? I say:
- Front country activities, e.g. day-hiking, trail running, skiing, snowshoeing, fishing, hunting
- Shorter backcountry trips, or longer trips with occasional cell phone access
- Moderate- and high-use backcountry areas
- Group trips, so long as someone else has a satellite phone or 2-way messenger
When I am on a remote or high-risk solo trip, or when I am responsible for the well being of a group, I upgrade my communication device to a two-way messenger or — even better — a satellite phone.
Versus the competition
With the Gen3, SPOT owns the 1-way satellite messenger market. There is no comparable unit from another manufacturer.
Personal locator beacons (PLB’s)
A PLB like the ACR ResQLink is a simpler device than the Gen3. PLB’s are for emergency use only; they are incapable of sending non-emergency “Okay” messages. They are comparable in weight and size, and less expensive in the long run because there are no annual or monthly service fees. I have read that the 406 MHz signal is more reliable than that used by satellite messengers.
DeLorme inReach messengers
The DeLorme inReach SE and DeLorme inReach Explorer are a step up from the SPOT Gen3, but a step below a satellite phone like the SPOT Global Phone. While they have more features than the Gen3 — notably, 2-way text communication — they are heavier and larger, more expensive to own and generally to operate, and more disruptive to the backcountry experience. Read more about the DeLorme inReach.
The core question with satellite communicators is: If I have an emergency, will my message be received? Thankfully, I cannot personally vouch for the Gen3 in this regard, but with its record of 3,500+ rescues, there is reason be confident.
The receipt rate of my “Okay” messages has been very high — I don’t recall many messages, if any, that were missed. A clear view of the sky is ideal, but I’ve also sent many messages though heavy Appalachian tree cover and from the bottom of deep Utah canyons. On my earliest trips with the device, I wanted receipt of my outgoing messages, but I learned to eventually trust it.
The device’s reliability and accuracy is understandably less in tracking mode: it’s more difficult to obtain a GPS fix while moving; it’s less likely to be pointed directly at the sky, or have a constant clear view of the sky; and it only sends one message at each interval, not multiple messages over a longer period as it does with Okay, Help and SOS messages.
I have read that the Globalstar satellite network is less reliable than others (e.g. Iridium) and that the SPOT Gen3 is under-powered versus other satellite communicators (.4 watts, versus 1.6 for the inReach units and 5 watts for the ACR PLB). Nonetheless, my anecdotal experience is that it’s a reliable and trustworthy device. Maybe an engineer who better understands wattage and satellite networks can provide us an update in the Comments section.
Very light and packable
At just 4 oz and the size of a bifold wallet, the SPOT Gen3 is comparable to the ACR ResQLink PLB, which has less functionality, and about half the weight and size of the DeLorme inReach 2-way messengers.
For this reason, I have no hesitation about carrying it on a long trail run, a simple day hike or ski, or an ambitious backpacking trip when every ounce matters.
The Gen3 does exactly what it needs to do, without any additional functionality that increases build, cost, power demands, and risk of failure. It can send four messages, each with a dedicated button: “Check-in/Okay,” “Help,” “SOS,” and a custom message that must be pre-programmed via SPOT’s website.
It does not offer 2-way communication. Messages cannot be customized in the field. And there is no screen, option for smartphone pairing, or GPS functionality.
The location from which the SPOT Gen3 sent a message is shared with message recipients (see email screenshot, above) and can be broadcast via social platforms like Facebook. This is a non-critical but value-added feature of the Gen3, as it allows family and friends to engage my trips on a deeper level. I recall a trip I did in southern Utah, for example, where my mom would pull up the location of my messages on Google Maps, and then look at photographs that were geo-tagged nearby so that she could better understand the landscape.
1-way communication: good and bad
I go backpacking partly to “get away from it all.” But my family and friends want to know that I’m safe, too. Since the SPOT Gen3 is limited to 1-way outgoing messages only, I can satisfy both of these objectives. In contrast, I cannot regularly “check in” with a PLB, and inevitably with a 2-way messenger or satellite phone I hear about non-emergency events and issues at home and work .
In the event of an emergency in the field or at home, however, 1-way communication is a liability and 2-way communication is much preferred. I was extraordinarily thankful to have the SPOT Global Phone, for example, when Amanda was protecting our home in the 2013 Boulder floods and when a guided client became immobilized by a partially torn lateral collateral ligament (LCL).
Two-way communication can also be extremely convenient. Receive updated weather forecasts, reschedule a shuttle or bush plane pick-up, resolve urgent problems at work, etc. Plus, it’s nice to stay in touch with your spouse.
Software and system updates
In my account on the SPOT website, I can specify who receives my Okay, Help, and customizable message — and how. All SOS messages are directed to the GEOS International Emergency Response Coordination Center, which delegates the response to local search and rescue teams. The user interface is clunky but functional.
To update the device software and/or my tracking interval setting, I must use the SPOT Device Updater software and plug the device into my computer via USB. The process seems Stone Age-like, but it’s the only option without a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi chip.
Interpretation of SPOT messages
Without the ability to customize messages in the field, it is worthwhile to have a pre-trip conversation with message recipients about their interpretation. “Okay” is self-explanatory, but under what conditions might you activate the “Help” or “SOS” signals? In a future post, I’ll make some recommendations.
Disclosure: Primarily for use on my guided trips, I was provided by SPOT a Gen3 unit and service. They had no influence over this review.